Ahh...the annual St Patrick's Parade here downtown today--a million green clad and soon to be trashed suburbanites making all forms of public transportation hellish. I would prefer to avoid the loop at all on days like this. It is, however, absolutely gorgeous weather-wise, the first day I've felt I could actually put away that damned grey peacoat and go with a sweater--first time since October. I've been attempting to articulate my thoughts on this week's chapter of readings for the lit class on slam poetry. Not easy, since I can't condemn it completely, nor can I embrace it. Those who know me will agree that I'm extraordinarily wishy-washy on all things poetry-related and thus why I never write reviews. I can say one thing today, and another entirely different thing tomorrow about slam poetry and both of them be true, but here's what I'm thinking today anyway.
I ‘m willing to admit that the minute I hear the term “slam poet” I’m apt to roll my eyes, fearing the worst. I actually know a number of poets who used to compete in slam events who are now enrolled in MFA programs and were reluctant to mention their slam credentials on their applications, fearing a similar response. It’s odd, but the people who seem to have the biggest elitest response to slam poetry tend to be the more experimental poets (who are simultaneously the most academic ones as well in my experience), which is ironic given how Beach sets them up as both in opposition to “official verse culture” and “workshop poetry.”
I also, however, take serious issue with how Beach doesn’t seem to do a very good job of distinguishing between “performance” oriented poetry and “slam”—a question of a style, or styles of writing for performance, and something that is simply a venue. While the possibilities for performance poetry—everything from spoken word as it’s usually defined, to multimedia extravaganza, is exciting and opens up a lot of possibilities, slam competitions, however, seems rather reductive, often catering to the lowest common denominator (as does most contemporary culture in the larger sense, I would argue.) I suppose it’s a likely outcome when competition is involved. And yet it doesn’t have to I suppose. I’ve been waiting for a more literary slam for years to no avail.
I agree with Beach, however, in his discussion of one poet, Paul Beatty, toward the end of the chapter that such terms can be limiting, another type of branding that puts everyone in neat little compartments and only makes things even more divided and chaotic. Consequently, one faction doesn’t take the other seriously, and at least in Chicago, you have this fractured sort of poetry scene where nobody knows what anyone is doing except their own little corner, which is I suppose representative of poetry on a larger level, and hearkens back to Beach’s overly-simplistic dichotomy between mainstream and experimental poetry.
Even though I can’t place myself within the boundaries of any camps with much comfort, (being an academically trained poet who’s a little suspicious of it, neither really mainstream or really experimental, and also as someone, at least on a social if not aesthetic level, who tends to gravitate toward open-mic type readings and the poets found there.) I think contemporary performance poetry is given a short shrift because of how the term “slam” is consistently associated with it, shutting off the potential of merging literary poetry—that which excels because of image, music, attention to language—and performance. So many poets I go to see read are rather uninspiring and flat in their delivery and to me it somehow hurts my interpretation of their work afterwards, much as my reading of Sexton and Eliot are colored by having heard their voices in recordings. (both sort of badly). On the other hand, a good dynamic and performative reading can make me see things I may not notice on the page itself, and make me like work I may not otherwise.
In other news, we have dispensed with the ridiculous anthology were were using, and are bringing in a poem each to make a sort of organic anthology-like construction that we'll talk and write about each week. Found only one gem among this week's offerings-something from Christian Hawkey's The Book of Funnels, which was so very cool it made me go in search of the book. I'd brought in something last week from Daphne Gottlieb's Final Girl since we were talking about performance this week--and Gottlieb is one is one who embodies both--the performative and the literary--so well.